Palo Alto is planning perhaps the most critical infrastructure in its history: the separation of our roads from the rail line that bisects the city. As a City Council member and chair of the Rail Committee, I want to thank everyone who has come to the first two workshops on rail grade separations. We received a lot of great community feedback. Please come to the next workshop planned for Oct. 21.
The desire from the community is clear. We need to exhaustively investigate creative approaches to put the train underground and evaluate whether it is possible to do it across town or across a portion of it. Past councils, past rail committees, past community groups and our current community engagement process have all shown a preference for this approach. We need to get serious about how to underground the train and how to pay for it.
In parallel with technical analysis and community considerations, we need a comprehensive funding and construction approach. It will be easy to do a superficial job and declare that an underground alternative is too expensive. Naysayers will inflate costs, assume excessive constraints and dismiss the idea without gathering facts. We need a detailed analysis coupled with some creative approaches to truly determine feasibility.
Unfortunately, in highly urbanized areas, using only high-level evaluations to quickly eliminate alternatives is not helpful. It turns out that details can both add costs or cut costs in highly complicated plans. There are no simple, cheap alternatives, so we must do a detailed evaluation of the best alternatives. We must also work closely with neighboring cities to knit together a solution.
An underground solution provides many benefits including a flat pathway for pedestrians and bicyclists, diminished noise and dust, enhanced safety and recovered green space; but it is expensive. An earlier analysis showed that it might be possible to trench the train under two crossings in south Palo Alto for around $500 million. That's a lot, and it requires hard work to make it possible. But $500 million starts to look feasible when one considers that road underpasses with room for bike and pedestrian crossings are likely to cost $200 million-plus per crossing.
Another early analysis showed that if we instead lower the road under the tracks, up to 80 homes would have to be taken through eminent domain to maintain turn lanes onto Alma Street, and that could be up to $250 million just in property acquisition costs for a total of $650 million-plus. Throw in a lawsuit or two, and two underpasses could easily exceed the cost of a trench.
An interesting idea raised at one of our community meetings is to consider the rail corridor and Alma together as a way to minimize costs and construction impacts. Imagine running the rail in a trench in the middle of Alma with roadway on both sides. Could this help minimize the need to seize homes, create additional safety by isolating the tracks and lower costs by allowing a lot of construction to occur while Caltrain is running? Without deep analysis, we can't even contemplate these options.
The funding of grade separations isn't just Palo Alto's problem because the Caltrain corridor provides a huge regional public benefit. Grade separations allow for more frequent Caltrain service (which directly correlates to fewer cars on U.S. Highway 101) and provide for better traffic circulation regionally.
In Santa Clara County, sales-tax revenue from Measure B will provide some money but was not intended to completely fund even basic grade separations. Additional funds from VTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the state High-Speed Rail Authority, the state of California, and the federal government will need to explored.
Other communities have formed dedicated joint-powers agencies to manage public-works projects of this scale. We may need such an organization. Carefully managed construction and regional coordination could significantly decrease costs. A best-case scenario would be planning to separate every grade crossing along the Peninsula and coordinating construction schedules to drive down the cost for each city. There is no doubt that this would be a big undertaking.
Finally, a business tax or rail assessment district, in addition to taxpayer money, could help fund grade separations. We are one of the few California cities without a business tax. The City Council started a business-tax discussion a year ago, but it was halted this spring by the new council. We need to quickly resume efforts and get serious about a 2018 ballot measure to help fund transportation infrastructure.
A business tax should not be controversial. Grade separations are good for business from San Francisco to Gilroy. The conditions in just a few years with more trains running will wreak havoc with commuting, shipping and general mobility, impacting nearly all businesses connected to the Peninsula. Silicon Valley business leadership can truly lead here by getting on board and funding infrastructure for the next 100 years. It's time for our business community to help pay its share to improve transportation. It's also time for Palo Alto to fully explore all possible solutions for grade separations and seriously work on funding solutions.
Tom DuBois is a Palo Alto City Council member and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are his own.